NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD — The Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, launching in January 2015, will provide critically unique observations aimed at maintaining at risk U.S. capabilities for broadcasting real-time solar wind alerts valuable in protecting a wide range of crucial U.S. infrastructure from disruption by approaching solar storms.
AmericaSpace recently visited DSCOVR up close with the probes NOAA/NASA science team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where it is undergoing final assembly and testing in a clean room facility before shipment to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“The purpose of DSCOVR is to provide space weather warning service capability continuity,” said Errol Summerlin, DSCOVR Scientist in NASA’s Heliophysics Division, in an interview with AmericaSpace at the NASA Goddard spacecraft clean room.
“The two spacecraft currently providing space weather data are NASA’s ACE and WIND satellites, which are 20 to 25 years old.”
ACE is nearly 20 years old and far beyond its original design lifetime.
“The instruments on both are starting to pieter out and will fail at some point,” Summerlin said.
DSCOVR will replace the solar winds alerts currently being provided only by the aging Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) satellite launched in 1997.
It is a joint project between NASA, NOAA, and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) that will be managed by NOAA.
The couch-sized spacecraft will be launched in January 2015 atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The Falcon 9 rocket is being provided by the USAF under their launch services contract with SpaceX.
DSCOVR is targeted for injection to the L1 Lagrange Point, where it will make simultaneous scientific observations of the solar wind and the entire sunlit side of Earth with a suite of science instruments from NASA and NOAA.
L1 point is a neutral gravity point that lies on the direct line between Earth and the Sun, located 1.5 million kilometers (930,000 miles) sunward from Earth.
The probe will give an early warning of incoming geomagnetic storms and space weather alerts with a lead time of 15 to 60 minutes.
“DSCOVR’s primary purpose is to provide the continuity of the space weather information, which is useful to NOAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force which is why they are providing the launch,” Summerlin explained.
“With the solar wind data, NOAA can provide the appropriate warning level to the space weather events. Anything that hits the Earth, will hit L1 first. We’ll get a much better estimate of the size of the event.
“Right now we can’t really use observations on the sun to predict when an event will hit the Earth, with the really dangerous energetic particles. We can’t see the energetic particles in the atmosphere of the sun.”
From L1, the satellite’s sensors can monitor the constant stream of highly energetic particles emanating from the Sun before they impact Earth, and thereby provide advanced warning of approaching solar storms with the potential to cripple electrical grids, disrupt communication systems, throw off GPS navigation, reroute air travel, affect satellite operations, impact current on oil flow through pipelines, and endanger human crews aboard the ISS.
“So the L1 point is the most reliable means right now for saying something will happen and this is how big it will be, and it will happen in 15 minutes,” Summerlin elaborated to AmericaSpace.
And that 15 minute warning is sufficiently long to be useful for spacecraft operators, Summerlin stated.
“They can go into safe mode.”
If ACE fails before DSCOVR is launched, there will be an immediate gap in ACE’s unique solar wind observations and the early warning space weather alerts.
The 750-kilogram DSCOVR probe measures 54 inches by 72 inches. It carries four main solar science and Earth science instruments from NASA and NOAA that will operate continuously.
NOAA’s Plasma-Magnetometer (PlasMag) instrument is comprised of a magnetometer and faraday cup that measures solar wind activity, including the magnetic field and the velocity distribution (magnitude and direction) of solar wind particles with higher time resolution than existing instruments.
NASA’s pair of Earth science instruments include the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology Advanced Radiometer (NISTAR).
EPIC will provide spectral images of the entire sunlit face of Earth, as viewed from an orbit around L1. It will view the entire sunlit Earth from sunrise to sunset and collect a variety of science measurements include on ozone, aerosols, dust and volcanic ash, vegetation properties, cloud heights, and more.
EPIC will capture full-disk images of Earth about every two hours that will be publicly available within 24 hours via NASA Langley.
NISTAR is a cavity radiometer designed to measure the absolute spectral irradiance (power of electromagnetic radiation) reflected and emitted from the entire sunlit face of the Earth.
NOAA will provide the space weather alerts from its instruments, while NASA will process the Earth science data from the agency’s instruments.
All of the science instruments currently aboard DSCOVR were there as part of the original Triana mission instruments.
“No instruments have been added,” noted Al Vernacchio, DSCOVR Project Manager from NASA Goddard, in an interview at the clean room.
The NOAA instruments were relocated on the magnetometer boom to improve their performance, noted Vernacchio.
The DSCOVR satellite was developed in a partnership between NOAA, NASA, and the U.S. Air Force (USAF) for Earth science and space weather observations and has a complicated and controversial history.
It was originally known as “Triana” (aka Goresat) and was conceived by then-U.S. Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton Administration as a low cost satellite to take near continuous views of the Earth’s entire globe to feed to the internet as a means of motivating students to study math and science.
Triana was initially built in the late 1990s by NASA, but as a much more capable Earth science satellite to provide not only the near continuous views of Earth, but also to provide measurements of Earth’s albedo and to conduct the space weather observations.
But for various reasons, mostly related to partisan political battles in Washington, D.C., between Democrats and Republicans, the completed Triana satellite project was canceled and placed into long-term storage in 2001—after spending all the money to develop it!
DSCOVER was taken out of storage in 2008 with funding from NOAA and the USAF for evaluation by NASA. NASA retested and recalibrated the instruments, tested the mechanisms, provided new electrical components, and conducted environmental tests of the observatory.
It was resurrected with the new name to avoid past controversy.
At long last, DSCOVER’s valuable science contributions are on the path to begin in the High Frontier in about two months’ time.
Stay tuned here for continuing updates.
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